Twentieth Century Music

What was happening in the world at the turn of the 20th century?  What events may have motivated these post-romantic composers? Age of rebellion @32:00

When we look at artists and composers whose work stands the test of time it is easy to see that they all did something revolutionary.  They did things that hadn't really been done before or did them in a different way.  Bach had virtuosic organ skills and improvisational style.  Mozart wrote memorable melodies with risque plots in his operas.  Beethoven explored the limitations of the orchestra and his music was considered dark and confusing to many.  Liszt and Chopin wrote music that showed off the piano's possibilities.  The same is true for the music of the twentieth century.  Debussy, considered an impressionist composer, began to break the rules that had been the standard.  He opened the door for many who came after him.


Impressionism in art was the general attempt to capture an idea through the use of light and color without vivid detail.  How does this Monet painting give impressions without showing every detail?


Debussy's music was described as giving impressions as it did not necessarily conform to traditional form and western tonality.  What impressions does this piece give you?


The term Modernism includes music written between 1890-1930.  Igor Stravinsky's and Arnold Schoenberg's music fit into the category of Modernism.  Stravinsky is well known for expanding the rhythmic standards by not grouping beats together in the previously rigid and predictable ways.  Schoenberg's advancement was largely in melody.  He developed what was called a 12 tone system of music which will get into a little bit more in a moment.

What does ballet mean to you?  How does the following video compare with what you know about ballet?  This is the opening of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring.  What does it make you think or feel?

Rite of Spring

Expressionism was different from impressionism in that it was characterized by distortion and exaggeration to create an emotional effect.



Expressionism in Art

One of Schoenberg's advancements in music was moving to what is called a 12 tone system.  The 12 tone system uses a 12 by 12 grid in which numbers are written on the first line a total of one time.  The line is then written in a variety of ways in the lines to follow.  This is done so that no one note gets more emphasis than another which keeps the melody from having a tonal center or key.

Suite for Piano

You can create your own 12 tone matrix online.  When you select a tone it is entered into the first row and as you select more tones the matrix is filled out by moving the tone one spot down the row.  No tone is repeat in a row.

Neo-Classicism mainly occurred between the two world wars as society was seeking balance, clarity and restraint.  Neo-classical composers sought to bring back these ideas by incorporating classical form.  One such composer, Sergei Prokofiev did this quite often.  Perhaps one of the best examples was his Classical Symphony.

Dmitri Shostakovich wrote in the neo-classical style.  At the time he wrote his 5th symphony he had fallen out of popularity because his music was sounding rebellious of the communist party.  His 5th symphony sounded more "Russian".  Shostakovich received a lot of pressure from his earlier works to write more "classical" sound works because it better represented the political climate in which he was surrounded.

One of the most significant composers of the 20th century was the American Composer, Aaron Copland.  Fanfare for the Common Man Rodeo

Experimental music is just as it sounds.  Composers writing music by experimenting.  John Cage is well known for being an experimental composer.  One example is his prepared piano.  Items are placed in specific locations on the piano strings.  How has the timbre changed after the piano has been prepared?  Sonata II

Another famous piece by Cage is 4'33".  What do you think is the purpose of this piece?

Philip Glass, also a experimental composer, writes what is called minimalist music.  There is much repetition in this music with usually a consonant harmony.  Philip Glass has written the music for many movies including The Hours.

Einstein on the Beach Violin Concerto 1


During the 70's and on there were huge advances in technology.  What are some inventions that you can think of that came about in this time?  The music world did not go unaffected by these developments.  In addition to the access to computers the analog synthesizer became an important instrument in contemporary music.

But, slow down Amanda!  We can't talk about electric instruments without looking at the therimin.  This is one of the first electronic instruments and was patented in 1928.  It has two antennas which sense the position of the hands which control oscillators.  1 oscillator controls pitch and the other controls volume.  Here it is.


The analog synthesizer gets its name from the process of combining different sound elements, synthesis.  Not from the word synthetic.  The synthesizer manipulates the shape of a wave as well as the attack, decay, sustain and release of the wave.


Additional resources

Stravinsky Documentary

20th Century Musical Characteristics